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Third Annual HSL Properties Tucson Jazz Festival Brings the Swing to Downtown

by Kai Parmenter

The holidays are in full swing throughout the Old Pueblo, with the close of 2016 now in sight. With the New Year comes another occasion to celebrate, in the form of the third annual HSL Properties Tucson Jazz Festival. Beginning January 12th, the 2017 Festival will descend on historic Downtown Tucson for eleven straight days of jazz, featuring performances from both local heavyweights and national stars including George Benson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kamasi Washington, Tower of Power and more! Whether you’re a seasoned aficionado or merely jazz-curious, this year’s Jazz Festival presents a singular opportunity to see firsthand why this American art form continues to thrive in the 21st Century.

The Jazz Festival will kickoff on the evening of Thursday, January 12th with saxophonist Kamasi Washington at the Rialto Theatre. Washington has toured and recorded with Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, Harvey Mason, and others, and earned critical acclaim for his 173 minute (!) triple album The Epic, released earlier this year.

Friday, January 13th will feature not one, but two events: vocalist Storm Large, known for her collaborations with Pink Martini, as well as various American orchestras, will be performing at the Fox Theatre at 7:30 p.m., followed by saxophonist Alex Weitz, who’ll be playing an album release concert at Club Congress at 10 p.m. A native of Tucson, Weitz took part in the Tucson Jazz Institute for five years before moving to Miami, Florida to further his music education.

The Festival will continue through the weekend with two performances by John Pizzarelli. Pizzarelli’s credits include a lively solo career, in addition to opening for Frank Sinatra on his 1993 international tour, and recording and performing with none other than Sir Paul McCartney on his Grammy-winning 2012 album, Kisses on the Bottom. You can catch Pizzarelli with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra at the TCC Music Hall on Saturday, January 14th at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, January 15th at 2 p.m.

But wait, it gets better. Monday, January 16th is the centerpiece of the Jazz Festival: the Downtown Jazz Fiesta, a FREE daylong celebration of jazz on Martin Luther King Day, with two outdoor stages on Fifth Ave. and a half dozen other venues including Playground, Hotel Congress, the Screening Room and Mercado San Augustin. Running from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. (or later), the Fiesta aims to highlight all styles of jazz, and will feature a ton of local and regional artists, including Tony Frank, Mike Moynihan, Eleanor Winston, Vox Urbana, the University of Arizona Studio Jazz Ensemble and many more.

Tuesday, January 17th will see Anat Cohen and Howard Alden teaming up for a duo at 7:30 p.m. at Crowder Hall, with UA Experimental Ensemble opening. Voted Clarinetist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association for nine straight years, Cohen has toured the world and performed at many notable jazz festivals. Alden, a much-sought-after guitarist, has recorded and performed with such artists as Steve Miller and George Van Eps, just to name a few.

Next up is Armenian pianist and composer Armen Donelian, who’ll be playing at the Scottish Rites Temple at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 18th. Throughout his career, Donelian has used jazz as a means to explore and interpret traditional Armenian music, and has also authored several educational texts.

Are you still with us? Good, because Thursday, January 19th is the main event: legendary guitarist George Benson will take the stage at the Fox Theatre for an evening of jazz, blues, pop and R&B. An NEA Jazz Master, Benson has won a staggering ten Grammy Awards over the course of his forty-year career. His 1976 album Breezin’ was the first jazz record to achieve platinum sales (now triple platinum), and really, what more do you need to know? The show begins at 7:30 p.m., with noted vocalist Nayo Jones opening.

What’s more, renowned jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater will be performing at the Fox Theatre the very next evening, Friday, January 20th. Recipient of three Grammy Awards and one TONY Award, Bridgewater has played with everyone from Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon to Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie. She’s even a UN Goodwill Ambassador. The Tucson Jazz Institute Ellington Band, which comprises some of the finest young jazz musicians in the nation, will open for Bridgewater. Better yet, drummer Lewis Nash, one of the industry’s hottest performers, clinicians and educators, will be sitting in with the Ellington Band.

The festival will close out with a trio of shows over the weekend, beginning with Tower of Power at the Rialto Theatre at 8 p.m. on Saturday, January 21st. Fast approaching their fiftieth anniversary, Tower of Power remains a worldwide phenomenon, combining funk, soul, R&B and jazz to create a distinct, groove-laden sound that’ll make you want to get up and dance. Sunday, January 22nd will feature two shows, beginning with Dixieland Jazz Brunch with The Road Runners up at the Hilton El Conquistador from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Bringing it back Downtown, local singer-songwriter Howe Gelb will be performing an 8 p.m. solo show at Club Congress.

Now in its third year, the Jazz Festival has always centered on Downtown. “Downtown is definitely the focal point of the whole festival,” says Yvonne Ervin, Executive Director of Jazz in January, the nonprofit presenter of the Tucson Jazz Festival.

It all began in early 2014, when Mayor Jonathan Rothschild approached Ervin about starting an annual jazz festival to help increase tourism for the month of January. Ervin, herself no stranger to the jazz scene, was the right person to reach out to.

Case in point, Ervin ran the Tucson Jazz Society back in the 80s and 90s—17 years in total—building it into the largest jazz society in the country, with 2,400 members and 42 concerts per year. “I’ve been producing jazz concerts for 35 years, and raising funds, but people always ask me to do this stuff,” notes Ervin. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll help, and if you and your friends can raise $100,000 in six weeks I’ll quit my job at the University and we’ll do it.’ We raised $125,000.”

The first Festival was a hit, with 28 percent of attendees coming from out of town. The second year it was 35 percent, with more than half coming specifically for the festival. Thus, in the span of just two years, the Tucson Jazz Festival has become a destination unto itself, and a must for fans of jazz. If this year’s lineup is any indication, things are just going to keep getting better.

So what’s different about the 2017 Festival? According to Ervin, the free Downtown Jazz Fiesta has been expanded considerably, and will include even more venues and local artists. There will also be jam sessions before and after many of the big shows, again featuring some of Tucson’s best jazz musicians. “We try and keep it the same scope,” says Ervin. “I’d like to add a few more concerts once we reach a critical mass…frankly, I think most of the shows are going to sell out.”

The Jazz Festival may have been founded on the notion of bringing more people in from out of town, yet serves the equally important function of highlighting the wealth of musical talent already here, while continuing to attract more national players to Tucson. As Ervin puts it: “I want to put Tucson on the jazz map.”

For all other info on the third annual HSL Properties Tucson Jazz Festival, including the full lineup, individual shows and where to get tickets, visit their website here.